Yesterday's Magazette

4 – Riding The Rails

Dad Loved Riding The Rails

By Jean Johnson

In 1986, a year after my father’s death, I went home to visit my mother. I asked if Dad had saved any papers from his past. Mom brought a half-filled shoebox of papers to the kitchen table for me to look at while she made dinner. These were the things Dad had chosen to save. I took a piece of paper and started writing. That was the day I knew I needed to know more about my father.


So, twenty-six years later, as I near “the end” of all these years of researching, collecting and compiling, I know I will miss my father all over again when I say “I am finished.”

As I look back over what I’ve learned, there’s a little distillation taking place. I see a shadowy, rather dark and wild, youthful figure emerging. The Iowa farm boy who hated farming, running between dislocated family members by “riding the rails,” and learning to make his way during hard times, displacement and war. A young man who carried with him always, stories of the Wild West, told to him by a Scotch-Irish grandfather he admired—one who left his family and braved the Dakota Territory on his own.

I see a young man who never knew that his mother’s ancestors reached back to the early English founders of this nation, or that his father’s father was one of the first immigrants to see the Statue of Liberty standing in the New York harbor in 1886 as he arrived from Germany to the shores of America.

But the young man who became my father was many different people. He grew up during the Depression. He was a wandering, work-less youth—one who would go on to serve his country in far off India and Tinian Island in World War II—and yet rarely mention all the history he had lived.

He was an amazing India-ink artist, but a frustrated one, who didn’t believe in his talent. He was a dutiful provider for his family; but one who loved nothing more than to hop on the interstate highway system (begun in the ‘50s and ‘60s) and fly down the road on his vacation. Even as a child I sensed how much he loved that. If my father was driving, he was happy.

Much later, he cherished a dream that some called ridiculous. I believe it was my father grasping at more longed-for freedom. Once retired, he dreamed of selling his house and possessions, and (much to my mother’s horror) heading to the mountains to pan for gold.

In the end, he was brave in the face of real adversity. He was gentle, and even inspiring, during a protracted and very un-gentle death. This was my father.

Even still, why am I left with the feeling of not having much? With the help of a few relatives who loved him and laughed with him in his youth, I have an unfinished quilt on my hands—beautiful—but unfinished.

My father’s brother, Lowell, told me that my father could never sit still, or stay in one place for very long. He recalled the time he and my father hopped a train out of Hurley, South Dakota, and headed for Sibley, Iowa, when they were boys of 13 and 14—but Dad kept going on.

“But where did he go?” I asked.

Lowell wasn’t sure, but told how they’d climbed underneath a coal car and ridden on the bottom so they wouldn’t be discovered. He said, “Yup, if your dad wanted to see me or Andy, he’d just hop a train.”

Each time I see a coal car now, I see Dad and Lowell, and wonder how they lived to tell the tale! Later in his teen years, he would hop trains to Seattle to visit his younger brothers, Paul and Earl, and his mother Eva. Much later—after the war—he hopped another train to return and see my mother after first meeting her. Was this his last time “riding the rails” before he settled down in Iowa to raise a family?

Dad wouldn’t talk about his past, unless his brothers were around, and then we listened, enraptured for those brief, wonderful moments that the laughter and the stories flew through the air. But children don’t remember stories told at the knee. We wish we did!

Occasionally though, he’d mention when he “rode the rails,” and his expression would change. He told me once, “Your father was a hobo, Jean. I met good men, and I met bad men.”

Years later I asked Aunt Margaret if she remembered any of Dad’s stories. She said he’d often tell the story of how he and some other guys caught a chicken, plucked it, and cooked it over a fire. Another time she remembered him telling how he and some friends were so hungry they actually went into someone else’s house, some farmer and his family who weren’t home, and made themselves something to eat.

“Weren’t you afraid you’d get caught, that they would get home?” she asked.

Dad replied: “No, not really. We were just hungry and you’ll do anything when you’re hungry.”

Kiddingly at this point, Margaret asked, “Well, did you do the dishes or clean up?”

When Dad said: No they hadn’t—she said she really scolded him for that!

My father may have died in 1985, but in all the important ways, he has become bigger than life to me. I still see him opening the back door of our small kitchen, and turning to say, “Hasta la vista,” as he walked off to start his work day. In my imagination, I get him to come back to the kitchen table, and say to him, “Wait, before you go Dad—just one more story.”

Vol. 40 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2013


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